Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead is a multi-layered book. The publisher promotes it as, “… a gloriously entertaining novel of heists, shakedowns, and rip-offs set in Harlem in the 1960s.” And yes, all of that is in there. But Whitehead also waxes philosophical about being black in that city at that time. And he has a lot to say.
I expected something lighter and faster-paced than what Harlem Shuffle delivers. Still, it’s an excellent literary and historical mystery that includes significant discussions of race, racial justice, and the realities of the time. Honestly, I shouldn’t be surprised, since it is from Whitehead.
Ray Carney is a college graduate who owns an up-and-coming furniture store. His mom raised him mostly alone since his dad was a small-time crook and heist guy. But Carney envisions more for his life, especially since he married Elizabeth. Her parents live on Strivers’ Row in Harlem, which is the perfect expression of their perspective on life. The young married couple has a daughter and she’s pregnant with their second. So moving up in the world is important to Carney’s whole family.
Speaking of family, Carney also has a cousin named Freddie. He’s the black sheep of the family, shiftless and always searching for the next “big job.” But he’s also like a brother to Carney, who feels protective. As the book opens, Freddie asks Carney to help on a job at the famous Harlem landmark, Hotel Theresa.
From there, Freddie and Carney both become embroiled in crooked activities, each with their own flavor and outcome.
Themes and Ideas
Carney’s life is an allegory of Black men’s experiences. He faces constant duality. He wants to be both rebellious and traditionally successful. At the same time, he loves his family of choice but is deeply loyal to his family of origin. Overall, his story illustrates many of the difficult decisions facing people of color in America.
During the three-part novel, Carney explains an old-school concept of sleep. People used to retire to their beds when darkness fell. Then in the middle of the night, they’d spend a few hours awake. As the night deepened, they’d sleep again for a few more hours until dawn. The French call this middle period dorveille, combining words for both sleep and awake. Carney refers to it as the “dorvay,” due to its pronunciation.
This idea of our nights divided into threes is also a metaphor for Carney’s life in Harlem Shuffle. We see his straight life. Then watch him resist going fully crooked, but taking a shift in the “slightly bent” world. And then perhaps finding a way back to the (mostly) straight life.
Whitehead also uses Elizabeth’s job as a metaphor for their lives. She works for an agency that advises safe passage through Jim Crow territory for Black travelers. And Carney relates her work to their larger life experience here:
“Stay on the path and you’ll be safe, eat in peace, sleep in peace, breathe in peach; stray and beware. Work together and we can subvert their evil order. It was a map of the black nation inside the white world, part of the bigger thing but its own self, independent, with its own constitution. If we didn’t help one another we’d be lost out there.
That was how Carney put it to himself …” p. 283, hardcover edition
Harlem Shuffle is a perfect book for a book club. It has deep themes and reflections on history that remain a part of life today. My book group had a fantastic discussion about it. But, if you have just a few weeks to read it, I recommend allowing plenty of time to dissect its layers. This is not a fast-paced heist thriller. Still, it’s excellent historical fiction.
Pair with S. A. Cosby’s propulsive thriller, Blacktop Wasteland. The protagonists are twin sons of different fathers, one urban and one country. For a nonfiction choice, try A Colony in a Nation from Chris Hayes, which refers to the dualities Carney experiences.